March 23, 2000A year on, Kosovo Albanians smile, Serbs lament
(Rtr) - Fehmi Mekolli, an ethnic Albanian, has no money to pay his electricity bill but he is a happy man.
Stana Stojanovic, a Serb, is equally poor, faces no utility demands, but is resolutely miserable.
Both are refugees, hard-up and jobless. Their differing outlooks sum up the change of fortunes experienced by Kosovo's competing ethnic groups since NATO began bombing Serb forces a year ago to halt their repression of the province's Albanians.
"At least I'll finally be paying my own people rather than the Serbian state," said Mekolli, after failing to persuade the power company to waive the bill for the flat his family have to squat in because their house was burnt by marauding Serb soldiers.
Mekolli, 50, his wife, four daughters and two sons were among hundreds of thousands of Albanians forced out of Kosovo by Serbs after the NATO campaign began on March 24, 1999.
They sheltered with an Albanian family in nearby Macedonia and returned three months later to find their home outside Pristina in ruins. They want to rebuild it but have no money.
"It has all been worth it, despite the pain. Nothing is more valuable than freedom and security," said Mekolli, relishing the liberty Albanians enjoy now Kosovo is no longer run by Belgrade.
Serbs, who formerly dominated Kosovo despite being only 10 percent of the population, have suffered a bitter reversal.
Returning Albanians terrorised most of them into fleeing and those that remain live largely in isolated enclaves, unable to travel or work and with scant hope of betterment.
"I didn't expect I would end up like this," said Stojanovic, 60, a cleaner expelled from her Pristina flat last June by angry Albanians. She found shelter in the nearby community of Gracanica, where 4,000-5,000 Serbs live under NATO guard.
Disappointed and upset, she survives on humanitarian aid.
ALBANIAN HOPE, SERB GLOOM
For Albanians in Kosovo the future holds hope of employment, education and eventual prosperity, all ambitions that were hard to realise under stern Serb rule in the 1980's and 1990's.
Even the most destitute appear to feel an improvement in their lives, regardless of the province's uncertain political future and the persistent lawlessness that plagues Kosovo.
"We don't really care what happened to us during the bombing because we suffered so much before that," said Ismail Gjokaj, 38, who once had his leg broken in a Serb police beating and who fled to the mountains during the NATO air campaign.
Gjokaj and his family now live in a corner of an abandoned factory partitioned off by plastic sheets. They camped in the garden of their destroyed home for several months before winter snows drove them indoors. "We can rebuild our house," he said.
By contrast, few Kosovo Serbs appear to have much faith in the future, despite the presence of a United Nations mission with a mandate to protect the rights of all ethnic groups.
"I live like a bird in a cage," said Dragan, 26, who was unwilling to give his second name. He fled to the enclave of Gracanica from Pristina, leaving behind his beloved computer. "I loved to be on the Internet and now I'm cut off."
"It's very strange. I used to live in the city. Now I garden and look after animals. For young people the situation is hopeless."
He left for Serbia once but returned because he was abused by his ethnic kin for being from Kosovo. Lonely and dejected, he would like to emigrate but doubts he can get a visa.
PROSPECT OF COEXISTENCE SEEMS REMOTE
The international community hopes the two ethnic groups will eventually agree to co-exist. But in Gracanica the tone is of defiance, with little forgiveness for crimes suffered or remorse for those committed.
"How can you say Serbs brought this on themselves?" said Gordana, a local woman. "The Albanians had no right to do this to us. Nobody has the right to do what they did. And this is not their land."
"This last year has been the worst period in the history of the Serb nation," said Sretan Mitrovic, president of the local Serb association, while sitting under a portrait of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.